TOWSE, William (1551-1634), of Bassingbourne Hall, Takeley; Witham, Essex and the Inner Temple, London; later of Serjeants' Inn, Fleet Street, London.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1604-1629, ed. Andrew Thrush and John P. Ferris, 2010
Available from Cambridge University Press



Family and Education

bap. 2 Aug. 1551,1 2nd s. of William Towse (d.1559) of Henham Hall, Essex and ?Agnes.2 educ. Christ’s, Camb. 1567, Clifford’s Inn, I. Temple 1572, called by 1584.3 m. (1) (?with £400) by 1587,4 Joan, da. of John French of Maidstone, Kent, bencher of the I. Temple, 1s. d.v.p. 3da.;5 (2) by 1623, Katherine (d. 3 Mar. 1633), da. of Thomas Banks, surgeon of London, wid. of Bartholomew Soame (d.1595), Girdler of London and Sir Thomas Barnardiston (d.1610) of Witham, s.p.6 d. 22 Oct. 1634.7 sig. Will[ia]m Towse.

Offices Held

J.p. Essex by 1593-d.,8 Saffron Walden, Essex by 1602-d.;9 commr. subsidy, Essex 1593-4, 1597-9, 1604, 1606-10, 1622, 1624, Colchester, Essex 1624;10 trustee, High Roding g.s., Essex 1597-d.;11 commr. gaol delivery, Havering-atte-Bower, Essex 1601-31,12 Colchester 1618-d.,13 charitable uses, Essex 1601, 1604, 1607, 1610-14, 1620, 1629,14 oyer and terminer, Home circ. by 1602-at least 1626,15 Essex 1629,16 sewers, Dunmow to Maldon, Essex 1607, Dengie Hundred etc., Essex 1607, Havering and Dagenham levels, Essex 1622, Rainham bridge to Mucking mill 1627,17 depopulations, Hunts. and Beds. 1607,18 piracy, Essex 1608,19 aid 1609,20 seize goods and property of Edmund Hamond of Debden, Essex 1610,21 highways’ repair, Essex 1622, survey Tiptree Heath, Essex 1623.22

Auditor (jt.), treas.’s accts. I. Temple 1586, 1588, 1593, 1596, 1600, 1604, steward’s accts. 1595, 1583, 1591, 1601, steward (jt.), reader’s dinner 1592, bencher 1595-1614, reader’s attendant 1596, summer reader 1597,23 treas. 1607-8, Lent reader 1610; sjt.-at-law 1614;24 recorder, Saffron Walden by 1615-d.,25 town clerk, Colchester 1618-?d.26


Towse should be distinguished from a kinsman and namesake who lived at Garton, in north Yorkshire,27 and from his own eldest son, William, who was called to the bar in 1603.28 His paternal great-grandfather may have been a Somerset mercer named Alexander Towse (d.1490).29 In 1539 a William Towse and his wife Isabel alienated a small parcel of land at Henham, in north-west Essex,30 but whether this conveyance related to Towse’s grandfather or father, both of whom were named William, is unclear. Towse himself was born at Henham Hall, and was only seven when his father died in 1559. The younger of two sons, he inherited a house and an unspecified amount of land in the villages of Great and Little Bardfield, both of which lie a few miles east of Thaxted.31 Raised by his mother,32 he entered Christ’s College, Cambridge in 1567 and subsequently trained as a lawyer. On migrating to the Inner Temple from Clifford’s Inn in February 1572, he befriended the bencher John French,33 whose daughter Joan he subsequently married. Another Inner Templar whom he undoubtedly encountered was Edward Caryll, high steward of Bramber, in Sussex, the borough for which Towse was elected to Parliament in 1586.

In November 1584 Towse was one of the Inner Temple barristers who signed the Oath of Association.34 His legal practice prospered, and in the later 1580s he bought the West Essex manor of Bassingbourne, in Takeley, for £400. Located a few miles west of Great Dunmow, and comprising 300 acres, Bassingbourne was to become Towse’s main estate, to which he added a further 180 acres through purchase during the 1590s.35 In 1589 he paid £600 for the Essex manors of Layer Breton and Moulsham, which together comprised more than 500 acres, and in 1593 he also bought the site of Beeleigh Abbey in Maldon for £400.36 In 1591 he obtained the mortgage of the Essex manor of Torrells Hall in West Thurrock for £400.37 These purchases were augmented before 1600 by the acquisition of numerous smaller holdings in Essex and Cambridgeshire, some of which he later sold.38 One of the vendors included Sir Oliver Cromwell*, whom Towse was later to represent in the Court of Wards.39

Towse sought election to Parliament in 1614, by which time he was 62 years old. It has been suggested that he owed his seat at Beverley, a borough with which he had no apparent connection, to the Council in the North, but it seems more likely that the Colchester Member Edward Alford was responsible.40 Alford had represented Beverley in 1593 and his kinsman, Sir William Alford*, lived just four miles outside the town. Towse played only a minor role in the Commons, although he contributed to four debates. On 5 May he argued that the House should deal with impositions ahead of supply, and proposed a joint conference with the Lords.41 During the debate on ‘undertakers’ of 14 May he moved for an order ‘that hereafter no private man should disperse any Parliament business to any other private person beforehand’. Three days later he defended his fellow lawyer Richard Martin*, counsel for the Virginia Company, whose rashness in criticizing the slow proceedings of the Commons had infuriated many Members. Towse urged his colleagues to hear Martin’s explanation before rushing to condemn him.42 Finally, on 19 May, he objected to the bill for the recovery of small debts after it was reported by Nicholas Fuller. Content that its provisions should apply in boroughs, he nevertheless opposed extending it to the whole country ‘by reason of the ignorance of bailiffs, etc. and partiality of trials’.43 Towse was named to just one committee, which concerned the establishment of a hospital in East Grinstead, Sussex (16 May).44

In October 1614 Towse was appointed a serjeant-at-law. By the spring of the following year he held the recordership of Saffron Walden, where he had been a magistrate since 1602. Saffron Walden lay close to Audley End, the Essex seat of the town’s high steward, Thomas Howard, 1st earl of Suffolk. Towse was well acquainted with Suffolk, and in 1613 he arranged for some timber to be carried to Audley End by the townsmen of Saffron Walden.45 In 1618 Towse succeeded Robert Barker* as town clerk of Colchester, an office within the gift of Suffolk as the borough’s recorder.46 Although largely honorific, the town clerkship meant that Towse was expected to represent Colchester in Parliament, and consequently he was returned for the borough in December 1620. Immediately after his election, he was instructed by the corporation to help draft a bill to enable the town to levy taxes to pave its streets and repair the haven.47 This measure was duly laid before the Commons on 21 Feb. 1621, when it was defended, not by Towse, but by his fellow Colchester Member, Edward Alford.48 A committee was appointed to consider the bill on 5 May, but Towse was conspicuous by his absence from the list of its named members, although as an Essex burgess he was entitled to attend its meetings.49 Towse’s apparent unwillingness to promote a bill that he had himself drafted is rather puzzling, but it may be that he was wary of courting the disapproval of his colleagues: some of the leading lawyers in the House, among them William Hakewill and Thomas Crewe, frowned upon Members who drafted private legislation themselves as this practice made them judges in their own cause.50 Despite his evident reluctance to become publicly involved, it seems likely that Towse co-operated closely with Alford on the Colchester bill behind the scenes. The two men certainly communicated with each other during the Parliament, as Towse asked Alford to intervene after he received a petition complaining of wrongs done by a master in Chancery.51

Towse’s legal interests helped to shape his parliamentary activity. On 6 Feb. he was named to the committee for a bill to reduce the number of lawsuits, while on 7 Mar. he was added to the committee for examining the patent for concealments and its precedents after Hakewill complained that his assistants, John Coke and John Pym, were not lawyers. He was the first Member to be named to a committee appointed on 2 May concerning the reform of jeofails, a technical measure of particular interest to lawyers as it concerned errors in writs which rendered them null and void.52 On 28 Apr. he supported his fellow serjeant, Sir John Davies, who claimed that their colleagues had been traduced by the masters of Chancery.53 Rivalry between the law serjeants and the masters in Chancery may explain Towse’s eagerness to further Thomas Barrow’s petition.

More than once Towse’s legal expertise was applied to the benefit of his constituents and their clothing interests. Some of the corrections in the bill for the true making of woollen cloth, which received its second reading on 21 Mar., are in Towse’s own hand.54 Moreover, on 30 Nov. Towse spoke during the debate which followed the third reading of the bill to prevent the export of wool and fuller’s earth. This latter intervention was also self-serving, however, as became clear after Alford described how those involved in the illegal trade hurled woolpacks from cliff-tops to the beaches below, Towse argued that offenders should not be tried in the Admiralty Court as Sir Julius Caesar had propounded. It was a maxim of the law, he observed, that, ‘where only part of the offence done upon the land, and the principal upon the sea’ the matter was ‘triable upon the land’.55 Being a common lawyer, Towse could not countenance the prospect of civil lawyers in the Admiralty Court poaching his business. That said, Towse was perfectly happy to rub shoulders with civil lawyers in other walks of life, as his partner in a previous property transaction was the civil lawyer Dr. Barnaby Gooch*.56

Towse’s interest in the 1614 bill for establishing a hospital at East Grinstead resurfaced in 1621, with his nomination to a fresh committee on 4 May.57 He also helped to formulate a bill to prevent corn imports, which he reported on 20 Apr. despite having not been specifically named to the committee.58 On 2 June the House heeded his advice to disregard Mallory’s suggestion that a petitioner named Ellwood should be forced to give sureties. ‘If we take sureties of everyone that brings a petition’, he observed, ‘then we shall deter all from presenting petitions’.59 However, his views were not always this welcome, for on 3 Mar. the Commons overrode his objections to the well-documented practice of writing to the assize judges requiring them to suspend trial proceedings against Members of the House during the life of the Parliament.60

Towse contributed to the debate on punishing the Member for Shaftesbury, Thomas Sheppard (16 Feb.) for maligning the Sabbath bill and its promoter, (Sir) Walter Earle. Towse supported calls to expel Sheppard, but did not favour any additional punishment.61 It seems likely that Towse held religious views that were broadly in tune with those of his godly neighbour, Sir Francis Barrington* of Hatfield Broad Oak, who retained him as counsel from 1608.62 puritan sympathies were evidently behind Towse’s contribution to a debate on a bill concerning alehouses on 1 March. In his opinion, alehouses were ‘the nurses of all drunkenness’, and consequently he recommended that the minister and ‘some principal men’ in each locality should have the power to withhold licences.63 Towse’s godly inclinations are most clearly apparent from the dedication of a 1623 treatise to him and his second wife, Lady Katherine Barnardiston, by the young puritan divine Thomas Barnes. Describing Towse and Lady Katherine as his ‘much respected friends’, Barnes thanked them for their ‘undeserved favours shown me’ and ‘patronage’.64 Lady Katherine subsequently provided for the creation of a lectureship at Witham.65

The remainder of Towse’s activity in the 1621 Parliament can be dealt with briefly. On 9 Feb. he was named to a small committee to consider requiring Members to take the Oath of Supremacy again as it was unclear whether everyone had sworn. In the following month he was appointed to consider a measure to restrain abuses associated with collecting debts in the king’s name (6 Mar.), and was subsequently nominated to the committees for two land bills, Calthorpe’s (17 Mar.) and Lumley’s (19 March). These appointments were followed by nominations to consider measures concerning local suits (20 Mar.), chantries (22 Mar.), Dover’s parishes (18 Apr.) and intrusions (18 May). In the second sitting he was named to the committee for the bill to confirm the conveyance of a Hertfordshire manor to Peter Vanlore (29 Nov.), and on the same day he was appointed to attend a joint conference with the Lords concerning informers.66 His remaining speeches included a defence of the election of the Member for Westminster, William Man (26 Feb.), as well as support for the attack on the Goldwiredrawers’ patent (7 March). On 7 Dec. he concurred with William Noye, who cautioned against sending a message to the king because it might result in Parliament’s dissolution.67

Following his marriage to the twice widowed and undoubtedly wealthy Lady Katherine Barnardiston,68 Towse settled at the latter’s house in Witham, nine miles north-east of Chelmsford.69 Elected once more to Parliament for Colchester in 1624, he played a less visible role than he had in 1621, being nominated to just seven legislative committees, one of which dealt with the reintroduced Colchester haven bill (14 Apr.), which he reported with amendments on 24 April.70 Another of his appointments concerned the draining of Erith and Plumstead marshes in north Kent (10 Apr.), a measure in which his neighbours, the Altham family of Marks Tey (seven or eight miles north-east of Witham) had a strong interest.71 The subjects of the remaining committees included concealed lands (24 Feb.), habeas corpus (3 Mar.), outlawries (12 Apr.), and a fraudulent conveyance by Robert Wolverston* concerning the manor of Prees, Lancashire (14 April). In addition, he was the first named Member to the committee for the bill to settle the lands of Sir William Somerville (26 April).72 On 7 Apr. he was appointed to attend a joint conference with the Lords on monopolies. His only known speech followed the second reading of the resurrected bill for the reform of jeofails (8 Mar.), in which he urged the House not to permit the measure to extend to cases already brought before the courts.73

Shortly before the Colchester parliamentary election of 1625 the lord chief justice of Common Pleas, Sir Henry Hobart* urged Towse to stand aside in favour of his eldest son, Sir John Hobart II*. However, the town’s electors ‘would not anyway condescend to leave him off’, even though Towse, who was now almost 74, ‘declared himself to the whole company how willing he was to give way’ to Hobart’s son on this occasion. Colchester’s voters could not recall a time when they had not returned their town clerk, and most were irritated with Towse for being ‘so earnest in his request’.74 Their refusal cannot have inclined him to become actively involved in the proceedings of the first Caroline Parliament. Indeed, during the Westminster sitting he was named to just two committees, one to restrain the granting of writs of habeas corpus and the other to avoid delays in the execution of another type of writ (both 27 June). A solitary speech, made during the Yorkshire election debate of 4 July, recommended that witnesses should be summoned ‘to prove the matter in fact’. There is no evidence that Towse attended the Oxford sitting.75

Towse played a more active, though still modest role in his final Parliament, that of 1626. Though not named to the privileges committee, he attended one of its meetings on 14 Feb., when he argued that the king’s decision to prick Sir Edward Coke* as sheriff of Buckinghamshire invalidated Coke’s recent election to Parliament for Norfolk.76 On 8 Mar. he expressed the widely held view that the answer made by the members of the Council of War on the previous day was inadequate. The councillors had claimed that they were not bound by the terms of the 1624 Subsidy Act to account for the advice they had given regarding the manner in which the subsidies had been spent, but Towse, the first Member to speak, responded that this ‘is no answer’ as ‘the question is both within the letter and equity of the Act’.77 On 3 June he called for John More II to be sequestered from the House and committed to the Tower after More appeared to suggest that the king was a tyrant and that the continued existence of the monarchy depended on preserving the subject’s liberties.78 In addition to these brief interventions Towse was appointed to a handful of legislative committees. These dealt with citations issuing out of ecclesiastical courts (9 Mar.), preaching (25 May) and purveyance (25 May). He was also named to a committee to draft a petition of grievances for presentation to the king (25 May)79. On 10 Mar. he reported a bill for relieving creditors and reforming the abuses of under-sheriffs and bailiffs in levying fees for outlawries, although he had apparently not been named to the original committee.80

Towse accompanied (Sir) James Whitelocke* to Whitehall in November 1626 to notify the king that the serjeants and judges were not prepared to endorse in writing the arrest of Forced Loan refusers as Charles had demanded.81 He was not named a commissioner for the Loan, and consequently took no part in its collection.82 In 1628 he was passed over for election at Colchester, which suggests that the corporation had finally accepted that he was now too old to represent its interests. That same year the borough turned for legal representation to his deputy as town clerk after the committee for privileges rejected as invalid the election of Edward Alford.83

Although now discarded, Towse continued to practise law right up until his death in October 1634 at Bassingbourne Hall, which he is said to have rebuilt and enlarged.84 Intestate, he outlived his second wife by 18 months. His passing was lamented by the judge Sir Richard Hutton, who described him as good, affable, courteous, honest and harmless.85 His grandson William, who obtained letters of administration, inherited property not only in Essex and Hertfordshire, but also on the Isle of Sheppey, in north Kent, which lands he had apparently obtained from his first wife’s brother.86 No other member of the family subsequently sat in Parliament.

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Author: Andrew Thrush


  • 1. Soc. Gen. Henham par. reg.
  • 2. Essex Wills: Bp. of London’s Commissary Ct. 1558-69 ed. F.G. Emmison, 149.
  • 3. Al Cant.; I. Temple admiss. database; Cat. of Mss in I. Temple ed. J. Conway Davies, iii. 1323. I. Temple Admiss. incorrectly describes him as being of ‘Hingham, Norf.’ and omits the information concerning Clifford’s Inn.
  • 4. Feet of Fines for Essex, vi. 1581-1603 ed. F.G. Emmison, 51.
  • 5. Vis. Essex (Harl. Soc. xiii), 505.
  • 6. E. Anglian, n.s. iii. 210.
  • 7. C142/525/121(2). The date given in Les Reportes de Sir William Jones (1675), p. 350, is incorrect.
  • 8. Cal. Assize Recs. Essex Indictments, Eliz. ed. J.S. Cockburn, 393; T. Rymer, Foedera, viii. pt. 2, p. 8; HMC 10th Rep. iv. 505.
  • 9. C181/1, ff. 35v, 231; 181/4, f. 174.
  • 10. Eg. 2644, f. 171; SP14/31/1; Essex RO, D/DSh O.4; E115/19/83; 115/29/31, 43; 115/56/13; 115/60/38; C212/22/21, 23.
  • 11. Essex RO, D/DU 886/51.
  • 12. C181/1, f. 10; 181/4, ff. 81v, 86v.
  • 13. C181/2, f. 329v; 181/4, f. 153v.
  • 14. C93/1/12; 93/3/3, 12; 93/4/4, 9; 93/5/7, 16; 93/6/6; 93/8/5; 192/1, unfol.
  • 15. C181/1, f. 15; 181/3, f. 208v.
  • 16. C181/4, f. 1v.
  • 17. C181/2, ff. 32, 33; 181/3, ff. 43, 234.
  • 18. C205/5/1, 3.
  • 19. HCA 14/39/217.
  • 20. SP14/43/107.
  • 21. E178/3792.
  • 22. C181/3, ff. 68v, 95.
  • 23. CITR, i. 326, 340, 354, 376, 382, 385, 403, 408, 412, 415, 417-18, 435, 444.
  • 24. Order of Sjts.-at-Law, 179.
  • 25. C181/2, f. 231; 181/4, f. 174.
  • 26. C181/2, f. 329v.
  • 27. For this man see Vis. Yorks. ed. Foster, 173; E403/2741 (Easter 1622), f. 77v; E407/35, f. 67v; E407/35, f. 67v. We are grateful to C.K. Towse for providing us with evidence that the two men were probably related.
  • 28. CITR, ii. 2. William the younger may have subsequently entered the service of Lord Boyle: Lismore Pprs. ed. A.B. Grosart (ser. 2), pt. 2, pp. 147-8.
  • 29. Ex inf. Rev. A.N.B. Towse.
  • 30. Feet of Fines for Essex, iv. 1423-1547 ed. F.G. Emmison, 222.
  • 31. Essex Commissary Ct. Wills, 149-50. The lands at Little Bardfield, however, amounted to more than 60 acres and were bought in 1556 for £100: Feet of Fines for Essex, v. 1547-1580 ed. F.G. Emmison, 54.
  • 32. J.M. Winmill, ‘Story of an Essex village’, Essex Review, lxi. 170, but note that this incorrectly states that Towes was 9 years old in either 1572 or 1575.
  • 33. PROB 11/61, f. 210r-v.
  • 34. Cat. of Mss in the I. Temple, iii. 1323.
  • 35. Feet of Fines, vi. 51, 68, 116, 128, 171.
  • 36. Ibid. 65, 194.
  • 37. Ibid. 90. The owner subsequently sold it to Sir John Leveson*: P. Morant, Essex, i. pt. 2, p. 228 (where he is incorrectly termed Sir ‘Thomas’).
  • 38. Feet of Fines, vi. 54, 83, 100, 129, 155; C54/188.
  • 39. WARD 9/532, ff. 16v, 36, 57, 214.
  • 40. J.K. Gruenfelder, Influence in Early Stuart Elections, 98.
  • 41. Procs. 1614 (Commons), 151, 157.
  • 42. Ibid. 245, 274.
  • 43. Ibid. 290, 292.
  • 44. Ibid. 258.
  • 45. R. Griffin, Hist. Audley End, 264.
  • 46. For the right of the recorder to appoint the Clerk, see Essex RO, D/Y 2/8, p. 69.
  • 47. Essex RO, D/B5 Gb2, f. 1v.
  • 48. CD 1621, ii. 111-12; iv. 83.
  • 49. CJ, i. 609b.
  • 50. W. Hakewill, The Manner How Statutes are Enacted in Parliament by Passing of Bills, in Modus Tenendi Parliamentum (1671), p. 133; CD 1621, v. 57.
  • 51. Harl. 6803, f. 51v.
  • 52. CJ, i. 511b, 543b, 602b.
  • 53. CD 1621, v. 111; CJ, i. 595b.
  • 54. CD 1621, ii. 249, n. 2.
  • 55. CJ, i. 653b.
  • 56. C54/2277/38. The property was located in Westminster.
  • 57. CJ, i. 607a.
  • 58. CD 1621, iii. 27; v. 320. Apart from those who spoke against the body of the bill, the cttee.’s membership was open to ‘all that will come’: CJ, i. 545a.
  • 59. CD 1621, iii. 405; v. 196.
  • 60. CJ, i. 537a.
  • 61. CD 1621, v. 501; CJ, i. 524a.
  • 62. Essex RO, D/DBa A19; D/DHt T126/39.
  • 63. CJ, i. 532b.
  • 64. T. Barnes, The Ct. of Conscience (London, 1623), sigs. A2, A3v, [A4]; S. Austin Allibone, Dict. of Authors, i. 127.
  • 65. W.J. Lucas, ‘Witham, Essex’, Trans. Essex Arch. Soc. (n.s.), iv. 116.
  • 66. CJ, i. 515a, 540a, 559b, 562a, 563b, 568b, 579b, 624a, 654a-b.
  • 67. CD 1621, v. 519; CJ, i. 528b, 543b, 660a, 661a; Nicholas, Procs. 1621, ii. 299. For his remaining speeches, see CJ, i. 558a, 569a, 625a, 655a; CD 1621, ii. 101, 235.
  • 68. For evidence of her wealth, see the wills of her former husbands: PROB 11/87, f. 46; 11/116, f. 394v.
  • 69. WARD 9/163, f. 17v.
  • 70. CJ, i. 766b, 775a.
  • 71. Ibid. 762a; Berks. RO, D.EE/F32.
  • 72. CJ, i. 673a, 677a, 763a, 766a, 775a.
  • 73. Ibid. 679a, 757b.
  • 74. Procs. 1625, p. 680.
  • 75. CJ, i. 253, 296.
  • 76. Procs. 1626, ii. 35-6.
  • 77. Ibid. 230-1.
  • 78. Ibid. iii. 359.
  • 79. Ibid. ii. 238; iii. 329, 332.
  • 80. Ibid. ii. 158, 246. The ms cttee. list originally included the phrase ‘all the lawyers of the House’, but this has been crossed out.
  • 81. T. Birch, Ct. and Times of Chas. I, i. 164.
  • 82. Maynard Ltcy. Bk. 1608-39 ed. B.W. Quintrell, 383.
  • 83. Essex RO, D/B5 Gb3, ff. 70, 73.
  • 84. Essex RO, D/B 3/3/205/41; G. Rickwood, ‘Colchester MPs’, Essex Review, v. 195.
  • 85. Diary of Sir Richard Hutton ed. W.R. Prest (Selden Soc. suppl. ser. ix), 104.
  • 86. Index to Admons. in the PCC 1631-48 ed. M. Fitch (Brit. Rec. Soc. c), p. vi; C142/525/121(2); C2/Chas.I/W61/22.